Even among the more realistic pieces, something, inevitably, is awry. In “What Have You Done?” the central character, Paul, returns home to Cleveland, for the first time in a long time, and to a family that won’t forgive him for something he did—but what? Paul insists that he has changed his wayward ways—he’s married now, with a child and a steady job—but his family refuses to believe it. Or do they? Caught up in the tortured web of Paul’s point of view, we’re never sure, and in the end, we, too, doubt the existence of wife and child.
In “The Dark Arts,” Julian Bledstein is in Dusseldorf, staying at the Müllerhaus men’s hostel while receiving experimental treatment at a nearby clinic for an illness that is likely hysteria. This bleak gem of a story begins with Julian’s intimations of surreptitious couplings in the gym where the single men sleep: “Sometimes Julian could hear them going at it, fornicating as if with silencers on.” A night visitor to his bed sends Julian running in terror, but when a doctor at the clinic discovers he has a real illness—a brain tumor—he longs to plunge into this dark world, which he equates almost literally with the grave.
Gropings in the dark, whether literal or metaphorical, are frequent
occurrences in this volume, as characters grapple with the
inscrutability of self, other, and circumstance, and as language
gropes, with ludicrous exactitude, to express the inexpressible.
Strange comedy is the result.
In the masterfully written “First Love,” language is parsed, then parsed again in a wonderfully absurdist defamiliarization of a very familiar subject. “I could not sleep until I had labored through a regular lust application performed with motion, gesture, and languageflower,” the narrator says.
Leaving the Sea is Ben Marcus doing what he does best: upending
our readerly expectations, scrambling our sense of what narrative is
and what it can be. In this new collection, he takes us on a
strange journey into the human psyche, with all its exquisite